Skip to main content

Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea – Charles Seife ***

There are two books on zero, The Nothing that Is by Robert Kaplan, which we reviewed in a rather summary fashion some time ago, and Zero, which slipped through the net first time around, but is now out in a new paperback edition.
In Zero, Charles Seife tells us very effectively why zero is so important to mathematics (and would help the calendar be less confusing). He gives us a good, if relatively short, exploration of the origins of zero, how it came from Indian mathematics, through the Arab world into European maths. So far, so good.
Seife writes in a very approachable and enjoyable fashion. He does have a major weakness, though, which is a tendency to imply wildly overblown consequences to provide dramatic tension. So, for example, he tells us ‘Zero was a the heart of the battle between East and West.’ Really? That battle had nothing to do with trade, power and religion, it was all about zero? Again we are told that because Western calendars do not have zero (the number line goes straight from -1 to 1), it was an oversight that would cause problems millennia later. These problems seem to amount to the argument over whether 2000 or 2001 was the first year of the new millennium.
The other problem with this book is that at least three quarters of it isn’t about zero. A lot of the early part is about the void and infinity. He goes on and on about the Greeks’ dislike of a vacuum and of the infinite, making this such a big thing that he totally plays down Aristotle’s very important concept of potential infinity. But these aren’t zero. ‘The void’ is the concept that before creation there was a vast, perhaps infinite nothingness into which a creator brought light, matter and life. (Seife never mentions that most of these ‘voids’ actually had water in them in the original myths, because this doesn’t fit with his shaping of the story.) But that isn’t zero. And, of course, infinity isn’t zero either. Nor is the vanishing point in perspective drawing, yet, this too, he equates with zero.
Much of the rest of the book is about infinity, black holes, relativity and wormholes in space. Interesting stuff, quite well presented apart from the very dated looking line drawings, but covered better in other books – and in the end not about zero. So, it’s a real paradox. It is a good, readable book, even if the author is given to grand gestures, but most of it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. If you want a book that concentrates more on the subject, take a look at Kaplan’s – if you want a whistle stop tour of infinity, black holes et al with some zero thrown in (and a lot of woffle about infinity and the void) this is the one for you.

Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…